Short Story: Sugar Cane Summer


At the time of posting this story, it is officially the last day of summer in Australia. I am personally thankful for that! As mentioned in this short story, it’s been a ‘scorcher’.

Dogs seem to find their way into my short stories. I am not a dog owner, but have some canine friends in my life. This story is dedicated to Gina, a very special and much loved dog, who passed away recently.


Josh and Jake walk along the gravel road to the bus stop, kicking stones on the way. They’re clammy already; it’s going to be a scorcher. Passing casuarina trees and letterboxes, Josh rubs his stubbly chin, thinks I’ll have to start shaving soon.

He is going over the conversation he heard from the kitchen last night, to do with money and the drought; his parents’ voices strained behind the closed door. He was in the adjoining lounge room, trying to do his homework; his bedroom is too stifling to work in at this time of year.

There’s something on the road ahead of the boys, just after they cross the bridge over the creek. Coming closer, they see an open school backpack, its contents spilled onto the gravel. The harsh staccato from the cicadas surrounds them.

An audible rustle in the sugar cane nearby distracts them both. Josh quickly stuffs everything back in to the backpack, then hoists it onto his free shoulder in one swift movement. Without speaking, they look at each other then move forward into the cane field, stopping to climb through the barbed wire fence. They remove their backpacks to fit through the gap. Josh thinks to himself Mum will kill me if she knows we’ve gone in here. She’s always warning us about snakes.

The sound moves away from them as soon as they enter the foliage. They follow its zig-zagging path through the shoulder high cane. The boys begin to feel the weight of the morning sun on their heads now, each wishing they’d brought a hat.

After some time marching through the vegetation, Josh stops abruptly, looks around.

‘What?’ Says Jake.

‘I don’t know where we are. We are a long way from the road now.’

Their eyes don’t meet. Panic has joined them.

Josh pulls a water bottle from his backpack and takes a swig, then wipes his brow. Just like Dad, thinks Jake. The thought of George his strong father brings a lump to his throat. He pushes the image away, but it is immediately replaced by his mum, Julie, with her soft, cool skin and smell of honeysuckle.

‘I think we’re lost.’

‘What should we do now?’ Jake looks to his brother.

Josh clears his throat.

‘Let’s call Dad. He’ll be less worried than Mum. But either way we’ll cop a punishment for this. We’re late for school, for starters.’

Josh pulls his cell phone out of his backpack pocket.

‘Shit. Phone’s dead. I forgot to recharge it last night.’

Jake starts to scratch his scalp, a nervous tic that Josh recognises.

Putting his arm around his younger brother’s shoulder Josh says: ‘It’s ok buddy, we’ll get out. I promise. Let’s find some shade. Here’ – he tosses him a muesli bar. ‘And have some water.’

The boys walk a little bit further until they reach a fire trail. Here they sit under the canopy of cane so they are in complete shade and can escape the sun’s glare while they gather their thoughts. They nod off, the cicadas’ shrill singing them to sleep.

‘And what have we here?’

There is a boot within inches of Josh’s face. And a machete knife pointing downwards at the end of a muscly arm.

He gets to his feet, dazed in the groggy mid-morning heat.

Shielding his eyes, he tries to get a glimpse of the hulking figure where the voice is coming from; frantically looks around for Jake.

‘What the…’

Jake is shaking his shoulders.

‘You must have been dreaming. You were yelling.’

The sun is way overhead now. The boys’ faces are close; Josh can feel Jake’s hot breath on his sweaty cheek.

‘Hey, remember that cane farmer Mum and Dad told us to stay away from; you know, the guy with the bad temper who has had trouble with his crop this year?’

Jake looks around. ‘Yeah, I think so. So what?’

‘I just dreamt about him. I think we may be on his land.’

There is movement very close by.

They jump up together.

A dog emerges from the cane.

Josh notices its ears are bleeding, says: ‘It must have got caught in the barbed wire fence.’

Jake coaxes it to them, but it keeps its distance.

He asks: ‘Shall we give it some water?’

‘Yeah, but not much. We’ve still gotta get out of here. Don’t know how long that’s going to take.’

Jake makes a cup with his hand and rests it on the ground, gently pours a little water into it. The dog makes a beeline for him, starts lapping the water.

Jake: ‘His tongue is tickling my hand!’

Josh: ‘Come on, we need to make a move.’

‘Can the dog come with us?’


Much to Jake’s delight, the dog follows them anyway.

They reach a clearing.

Josh: ‘I know where we are now, we’re near the creek. I was here two weekends ago with Sam and Martin, remember ? We had torches, built a fire. It was spooky but a lot of fun.’

‘Yeah, and I wasn’t allowed to come with you.’

‘We followed the creek to get here that night, you know the one we cross every day to get to the bus stop,’ says Josh.

Jake has a sudden urge to be back in his bed, to rewind the day. Even to be on the school bus. For things to be normal.

They follow a narrow path down to the creek, the dog padding close behind them. On the opposite bank a girl in the same school colours is sitting in the shade.

They both stop side by side and take in this apparition. As if on cue, the dog stops too, it’s big panting tongue marking time.

Josh waves to her, yells out: ‘Hi. Don’t be scared. We were lost.’

The boys and the dog wade into the water towards her, the unexpected cold trickle of the creek a welcome relief through their socks. Mum will kill us about this too thinks Josh, too late.

The girl yells out ‘My name’s Ruby. I think I have sprained my ankle. It really hurts. That’s my backpack on your shoulder.’

She lowers her head. ‘I guess I’m pretty freaked out by all this nature… I heard something and panicked and ran. I’ve just moved here from the city.’

Josh asks ‘Don’t suppose you have a phone on you? I need to ring my Dad.’

She produces one from her pocket.

Josh: ‘Shit I don’t know Dad’s number. It’s always in my phone so I’ve never memorised it.’

‘Here give it to me.’ Jake punches the numbers into the phone then hands it back to his brother.

‘Dad it’s Josh. Yes I thought the school may have rung by now. We’re ok. Yes I know we’re grounded. We have an injured dog and girl with us.’

Jake is close to Josh’s elbow, trying to eavesdrop, but the percussive shrill of the cicadas blocks the rest of the conversation.


The boys don’t get grounded. Instead they receive a bravery award at school assembly the following week for rescuing Ruby.

Josh also starts to spend more time at Ruby’s than at home. Which is fine with Jake, now that he’s allowed to keep the dog. He calls him Rusty, which Josh thinks this is a silly choice, considering the dog is black.


Short Story: Under the Bridge






This short story was first published a few days ago on the 12shortstories website. Below is its second incarnation, with amendments. Thanks to my fellow writers at the  NSW Writers Centre for their constructive feedback, which helped breathed more life into my story. The prompt given for the story was the bridge, the word count 1200 words.


Connor stands in the shade under the bridge contemplating his next move. It’s Sunday morning and eerily quiet, too early for the cyclists and joggers. He fingers the rocks that he’d put in his dad Stu’s coat pockets. It’s the only thing that step-mum Coral allowed him to keep after the accident, when Stu didn’t come home. He feels plastic waste bags in the pockets too, left over from walking Rosie on this same stretch of reserve by the river. It was their father and son time, when they talked about everything.

A lump forms in his throat as he thinks of Stu leaving for work, just over two weeks ago now. A day just like any other, Rosie the blue cattle dog following after him, jumping up into the truck’s cabin like she had so many times before.

I should have told him not to take her to work, when she was still recovering from the operation for her bad tooth. It’s all my fault that she died with him.

His thoughts go to the phone call at school the day of the accident. And a woman standing at the classroom door wearing a sorry look. He had never seen her before.

Principal wants to see you.

He remembers feeling shame as the eyes of the entire classroom followed him, navigating his way from the back row of desks by the window; his favourite spot, where he could look out at the sky. Then walking behind the stranger, up the corridor, the smell of floor polish in his nostrils, a smell he hadn’t noticed until then. And her not talking, her skirt making a swishing sound as she padded quickly in front of him.


His finger now finds a sharp edge on a rock in his pocket. His hands are clammy. Says to himself: are they heavy enough? Will they do the job? What if someone finds me and I’m not dead yet? When they notice I’m missing will they dredge me up out of the river like a car or a shopping trolley?

He shifts position, sits on his haunches and looks out at the water’s rippling surface, shivering now in the cool autumn morning.

A Sulphur Crested Tern wings down gently on the grass near him. He is obscured by shadow, it lands in the sun, oblivious to his presence. Another one arrives, as graceful and silent as a butterfly, then another. Soon he counts 12 of them. Suddenly, as if on cue, they all look his way.

He catches his breath, is filled with unexpected joy by this visitation, a feeling he hasn’t experienced for a while. And doesn’t move until his legs are screaming; doesn’t want to break the spell. Then he loses his balance and the birds shift slightly, still looking at him in earnest. It is so quiet he can hear himself breathing.

A big clumsy looking dog bounds along and the birds take off in unison. Connor emerges into the sunlight to get warm, sits on the grass and straightens out his legs. The dog ambles straight up to him, tail wagging, enormous tongue panting, pushing him over sideways.

Next thing, Connor is on the ground, the dog licking his face. He tries to push it off, laughing now. The dog sniffs the coat all over, Connor thinking Maybe he can still smell traces of Rosie on it?

A sweet voice pipes:

Samson, come here! Oh my goodness, I hope he’s not frightening you. He’s a bit too friendly!

He looks up from the ground, still wrestling with the dog, shields his eyes to get a better view of where the voice is coming from.

It is a young woman, about his age. She has long wavy red hair, which looks golden where the sunlight catches it. She is beautiful. An apparition.

He rubs his eyes.

Samson is now back on his lead; she helps Connor to his feet.

Are you ok? Both standing opposite each other now, she starts wiping the wet grass from his father’s coat.

He gets a good look at her, guesses at her age – 15, like him – drinks in her perfect limbs, her Wonder Woman T-shirt, the smudge of make-up round her eyes, the full lips.

Embarrassment now starts to overwhelm him – at the rocks in his pockets, the oversized coat. It’s a dreadful brown colour – not one he would choose. But he doesn’t have a coat, and never needed one with deep pockets until today.

My name’s Annabel. Samson is a bit big for me to handle on my own sometimes. I’m on my way to the kiosk near the playground to get a coffee. Let me buy you one as an apology for his misbehaviour. Unless you are in the middle of something.

She slowly looks him up and down. Her blue eyes are soft, gentle. Connor notices that she is slightly cross-eyed.

He pauses, smoothes out his hair that is sticking out at the back from when he woke up, feels a slight panic as he remembers he didn’t clean his teeth this morning. The thought of coffee reminds him of Stu brewing up a thermos to take with him to work. Connor had tried it once, but didn’t really like the bitter taste.

Ok, that would be nice.

He takes off the coat, throws it over his shoulder. A rock falls onto the ground. He kicks it out of the way.

Rock collector are you?

No, I mean, yes. Uh, sometimes.

It’s ok, I’ll stop asking questions. My brother is always telling me I’m too nosey. Says it might piss people off.

Another rock falls out. Annabel laughs, but it is not a mocking laugh. It is full of warmth.

Still facing each other near the riverbank, Connor says can you wait here a minute? I just need to do something.

I guess that’s up to Samson! He’s a bit tired now, from chasing birds and people, which was getting a tad embarrassing. He’s so inquisitive! I’ll meet you at the kiosk. Need to find him some water.


He wants to tell her how much he misses walking Rosie, how he too used to get embarrassed when she started sniffing other dogs’ behinds, or the crotches of strangers, but he couldn’t. Not yet.

He fights off a sudden confused impulse to hold her, to cry for his dad, for his dog, for the injustice of it, for his loneliness.

Connor walks down to the water’s edge. He extracts each remaining rock from the coat pockets. One by one, he tosses them as far as he can, imagining they will reach the opposite bank of the river.

Now that he is alone again a sudden exhaustion seeps in. He sits on the ground and shuts his eyes, the sun on his face. His hands touch the fresh grass, he feels the earth warming beneath him, warming his heart, his blood; takes a few deep breaths.

After a moment, he gets up and brushes himself down – for the second time this morning – and throws the coat over his shoulder again. Then walks up to the kiosk to join Annabel and Samson.


Short Story: ‘Joy’


I wrote this short story for Writer’s Write, a website for writers based in South Africa, of which I am a member. I am grateful to one of the founders, Mia Botha, for introducing the ’12 Short Stories in 12 Months’ writing challenge. 30 members, including myself, successfully submitted a short story each month, culminating in 12 short stories by the year’s end. Mia provided a word prompt and word count; the rest was up to us.

Thus I thought it fitting to share my last short story for the challenge in 2017 below on my blog. The prompt given was the word Joy and the word count 1500 words.


I swim down, down and look up at the milky light, my pulse beating in my ears. There is nothing else, only silence.

Touching the bottom with both feet, I spring off, kicking furiously. My head and shoulders break the water’s surface. Gasping, I tread water and catch my breath, surveying the expanse of ocean around me.

Smiling now, I lie on my back in a star shape, the current nudging my body. The sky is a broad brushstroke of blue; the turquoise water is gently cradling me.

I look towards the shore, realising that I am out a lot further than I remember. I can just make out Garry back on the beach, wearing his ridiculous towelling hat. I can tell he is on his cell phone even this far away: his head slightly cocked to one side, elbow sticking out. I know the curve of his shoulders. What I don’t know yet is that he is talking to his mistress. He’s looking in my direction. Our 5 year old daughter Sophie is trying out her new kickboard in the shallows, near where he is sitting.

Back on sand, I set myself up next to him on my beach towel, and dry my hair with a spare one.

Who was that on the phone?

Oh, just Peter at work. Tying up some loose ends before he goes on leave too. He’s the only one in the office today due to the Christmas break. I think he’s a bit bored!

Why don’t you turn that thing off? You are officially on leave.

You know it doesn’t work like that with my job, he says, gently squeezing my arm.

He gets up onto his feet, flinging some sand on my towel.

Hungry? I’ll get us a sandwich and a coffee.

Yes please! Salad thanks, with avocado. And something plain for Sophie – you know what she likes.

He takes his phone with him.

I beckon Sophie to come out of the water, thinking, she’s been in there for over an hour. Then laugh at the realisation that she is as obsessed with the ocean as I am.

Garry returns with food and drinks. I question him about how much time he is spending on the phone lately: Surely it’s not healthy. Is work busier than usual? And you seem more distracted these days.

There’s the new deal for the commercial build in Singapore we’re pitching for. It’s just about to close. Business goes on babe, holiday season or not.

I guess so.

Here, drink your coffee before it gets cold, and eat your sandwich before the seagulls see it.

Two nights later when Sophie is in bed, I discover that Garry’s mistress’s name is Joy, which appears on his phone’s screen. It’s vibrating where he left it on the bed. I pick up the phone. I don’t usually take his calls; it’s a reaction. Maybe I don’t want him to miss anything, with the Singapore business deal so close to being finalised (this is what I ask myself later, when I go through the motions like a forensic detective).

Hello? Emily here, Garry’s wife. He’s just taking a shower. Can he call you back?

Whoever Joy is, she hangs up.

I look around me and doubt starts to creep in. Our bedroom feels a foreign place. Not a haven for sharing our fears, secrets and dreams, talking till late at night, and making love, sometimes at one in the afternoon or one in the morning; the special place where Sophie was conceived.

I then think of the other Joy I knew 15 years ago – the franchisee at Donut King where I worked part time during my Uni days: bossy but always with a kind word to say to the itinerants who came in for a cheap coffee and some company. She would keep the day old donuts for them. Word must have got out – soon there were a dozen homeless people sitting round the shop eating and drinking, not talking, with tired out faces. They would stay for hours when the weather was inclement.

And that same period when I encountered a woman washing her underwear in the ladies toilet. Humming to herself as she squeezed the excess water out of the garment and held it delicately with both hands under the hand dryer, moving it left and right for maximum effect, oblivious of the silent queue forming behind her. What hit me then was the care with which she handled her stained clothing, as if it were something precious.

That all seems a long way from this moment when I am starting to feel the bottom of my world has been ripped open and all its contents are spilling out.

While Garry is still in the shower, I move outside onto the balcony. Sitting in the dark, I think back again to my time at Donut King. Joy had to let me go after four months. Turned out that putting homeless people before profits wasn’t her best business decision. Regular customers stopped coming. I couldn’t stand the smell of fried donuts in my hair by then anyway.

I’d met Garry there. He was one of the regulars who didn’t even notice the homeless people, picking up some breakfast before hurrying for the train to Uni. We’d chat. He was so handsome, and funny. Turned out we had friends in common on campus.

We moved into a rental six months later, but could only afford a studio apartment. We didn’t care, as long as we were together. I remember not being able to concentrate in lectures, I was so tired from all the sex and late night talking.


Garry now sidles up to me in the dark. His hair is slick and wet, like a seal’s fur. He smells of cedar and has a towel hitched around his waist.

So who is Joy?


I just picked up your phone. Someone named Joy rang. At least, that’s what I read on the screen.

Garry doesn’t answer. He looks down.

I ask again: Who is she?

Someone at work.

Why is she ringing you at this time of the day?

He shrugs his shoulders.

Is she working on the deal with you?

Yes. His voice is quiet. She came with me to Singapore.

Something invisible starts to grow in the space between us.

There is a long pause.

Have you slept with her?


How many times?

Only twice.


Look, it’s nothing. It gets a bit lonely, you know? All this travelling. We had a few too many drinks on the trip before the last one. Started talking about our kids. She has two boys, older than Sophie, younger than her cousins. Then next thing, we are in her hotel room.

I make a stop sign with my hand.

I’ve heard enough. I’m going for a walk.

Where to?

I haven’t decided yet.

I head for the beach. It’s a fair distance from our place. I don’t think much about it, just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

After some time, I realise I am completely lost. I’m three suburbs away from home.

Hey princess where are you off to?

A car slows up beside me.

I don’t look or answer and keep walking.

Come on now, cat got your tongue?

I can smell alcohol on him.

An inner voice says: at least he is on his own, not that I am looking inside the car, not that I am counting heads. It’s just a feeling. But maybe there is a dead body in the back that I can’t see?

I break into a run, grateful for my fitness, the pumping adrenalin carrying me now.

I try not to think of the park I am running past, how he could just stop the car and get out, corral me into its’ shadowy vastness and rape me, stab me, suffocate me.

He plays cat-and-mouse, speeding up, slowing down. Can he smell my fear?

Thankfully a pedestrian way opens up between the next two houses. I run down it.

I knock on a door. I don’t know why I pick this one. Maybe it’s the beautiful planter boxes on the front porch.

A blonde haired woman answers my knock. She sits me down on her front step, beckons one of her pyjama clad children behind her to get me a glass of water. Then she puts her arm around me, croons in my ear. Slow down your breathing, take deeper breaths. It’s ok now. You’re safe.

I blurt: Please ring my husband Garry. His number is 0422 699 740.

She asks the other boy to grab her phone.

Garry, I have Emily with me. You’d better come and get her.

Lying on her front lawn under the soft glow of Christmas lights, I realise that I hadn’t told her my name.






The Same-Sex Marriage Campaign – Liz and Sam’s Story


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At the time of writing this post, voting for the same-sex marriage campaign in Australia has just closed and we are awaiting the outcome. My friend Liz Dore, a counsellor, shared with me the distress many of her clients experienced in the lead up to, and during the campaign.

The period has also been a personal journey for Liz’s son, 26-year-old writer, director and visual artist Sam Leighton-Dore. He is gay and hopes to marry his partner of 4 years, Brad, sometime soon. Sam looked after my own son when he was still at primary school, during the holidays while my husband and I were at work.

Hence this is a personal story for me too.

Liz is the only person I know who has been married, widowed, married and divorced. She claims that both of her marriages were special. Both Liz and Sam share common interests: mental health issues, sexuality and relationships. In addition, they’ve been working side-by-side garnering support for the YES vote in the same-sex marriage campaign, promoting it through their social media networks, and attending rallies and events around Sydney.

Sam had to deal with issues of anxiety and depression while growing up and was bullied at high school, which led him to write a children’s book titled I Think I’m A Poof.

He says: ‘the process of writing the book wound up being an incredibly empowering endeavour — men who once bullied me for being gay were all of a sudden reaching out to me over social media to apologise. It felt like I was finally turning the page on that chapter of my life.’

‘Growing up, my being gay was — and still is — a big part of what makes up my perspective of the world; something that I can’t change, however comfortable I’ve come to be with myself over the years. My creativity has always been influenced by my own experiences with mental health and sexuality.’

‘My ongoing struggles meant that my little sister Bronte occasionally didn’t get her fair share of attention. She has since blossomed into a wonderful artist and jewellery designer, and I feel fortunate that we’ve grown a lot closer in adulthood. We’re both lucky to have parents who always encouraged us to chase our dreams, however financially poor those dreams would make us’.

Liz says: ‘I knew Sam was going to do some great things.  When he was little, he was an avid fan of The Little Mermaid film and ran through the house wearing his mermaid’s tail.  In his teenage years, he joined the Australian Idol fan club and supported contestant Casey Donovan, taking his home-made signs with him to the shows.’

‘He was bullied at high school, both physically and verbally. It was a dark time for our family; we moved out of the area and changed schools. I’m in awe of his achievements as an artist, a writer and film producer. After he graduated from the Australian Film Television and Radio School, his film Showboy (starring Lucas Pittaway of Snowtown) screened at the Sydney Film Festival and won Best Short Film at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival.’

‘Sam has worked for production company Goalpost Pictures. He walked the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival with actors Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy and Chris O’Dowd from the film The Sapphires. He has also produced video clips for Jessica Mauboy and Baz Luhrmann’.

‘A few years ago, he made a short film of my Dateables Ball for people with disability.  This led to an ABC 730 Report segment about the singles event and a donation by the actor Ben Mendelsohn’.

‘Sam’s partner Brad is a wonderful addition to our family, loving and supportive of him, Bronte and myself.  I would be proud to have him as my son-in-law. I love Sam and hope that he and his partner are given the respect and acknowledgement they deserve when they commit to each other, or if they separate from each other, or when one of them passes away’.


I am grateful to Liz for her friendship, and for sharing the experience of motherhood over the years. I stand by her belief that it is every person’s right to marry the partner of their choosing, irrespective of gender.

On that note, if you are reading this and you are an Australian citizen, I hope you got your vote in on time.


Coffee with Stan at West Juliett


My writing group have come together to farewell one of our ‘tribe’ at the popular haunt, West Juliett, in Sydney’s inner west.

Owner Stan Loupos is as calm as a sentry amidst his fully packed cafe this Saturday morning. Even though he doesn’t look it, he is busy – vigilantly watching over his 130 customers and 16 staff.

Stan is also grinning, in his element, despite his 2am start to shop at the markets. This is his 20th café. He’s been in the food business for over 30 years.

He imparts these facts while escorting me to my table. This is how I meet Stan for the first time, amid the chatter ricocheting off the concrete floor and walls. I’m intrigued by this person who appears very relaxed, despite his small army of staff and 2 rooms full of people waiting to be fed.

I have also owned a café, for 4 years, and am way-too-familiar with the 12 hour days, staff problems, council issues, unreliable suppliers, demanding customers (one even tried to sue my business – another story). And on top of that, keeping my head above water and hoping that people keep walking through the door.

So why does Stan do it, again and again?

I return for a chat when he is not so busy, over one of his excellent coffees:

What drew you to hospitality?

I need to be around people. Work has to be fun. The scenery changes with my customers. Someone said to me once: If you enjoy what you do, you will never work a day in your life.

Where did it all start? – What did you do after you left school?

My parents were in the café business. We had one in West Wyalong (467 km west of Sydney) for 9 years, when I was growing up. I worked there every day before and after school, and on weekends.

I bought my first café in West Wyalong too. My parents were partners.

What is the most important choice for starting a café – location?

Look out for something that’s been neglected if possible. Do your homework and get the right professional advice. Before I bought this business, I went through all the reviews, including the bad ones. If you can fix the bad ones, you are laughing.

You also need to be honest about your own strengths. For example, social media is not my thing. So I have engaged a company that specialises in this. They update my website and regularly post on Instagram and Facebook (people eat off their screens these days; you need to keep up with them).

How do you keep your staff in a notoriously high staff turnover industry?

I have a Head Chef but my staff are treated equally. I brainstorm new menus with everyone. The entire team are part of the decision making process.

A team leader looks after front of house. My wife Christina does the rostering from home, but staff members are allowed to swap shifts amongst themselves. We never roster them for the whole weekend – they get alternate Saturdays and Sundays off.

All my staff share the tips. I stay away from that, let them sort it out themselves.

We employ people via word of mouth mostly. The ‘gap fillers’ come and go, but the core staff stay.

After a frantic Saturday or Sunday – when we may have fed 500 customers – we go to one of the nearby hotels. I buy them a few drinks and something to eat. Then I leave them to it.

I trust my staff to the point where the kitchen hand took the takings home with him one night and brought them back the next day for me.

I’m not into hierarchy. It took 3 days for a new staff member to find out that I was the owner, after she advised me that I had better look busy in case the boss saw me! (Another staff member eventually blew my cover).

I keep a tight rein, but also try to keep it fun.

What is the secret to café success – a great chef and accountant?

My wife and my sister Cindy are my secret weapons. The males in my family are not good at the details.  Cindy runs the till and looks after the takings.

We also change the menu regularly, promote what’s in season, such as mangoes at the moment.

I think it’s important to offer something different to your customers. At West Juliett, it is our homemade baked goods. We are also about to start selling our own Kombucha. Plus we do events in our adjoining room, ‘Little Juliett’ – christenings, corporate presentations, book launches.

You need to know how to read your customers and have systems in place.

There is a cultural difference between kitchen and floor staff; you have to know how to treat both, and be across their roles so that you can jump in if there is a problem.

Remember to have a laugh with your staff, make sure your customers are ok, then the rest flows on.

And if you try to please everyone, you end up failing.

High notes?

Every day has its high notes!

Low notes?

A staff member hurt her shoulder once, resulting in a workers’ compensation claim. We had the matter investigated. The insurer produced photos of her swimming, playing tennis, at a night club. They went ahead and paid her, citing that this was the less complicated option. My insurance premium went up the next year as a result.

What about lifestyle. When do you get to see your family, take holidays, have down time?

We are open 6am – 4pm most days, so it’s an early start, but it means that I can be home at a reasonable hour every night. I only take holidays when I sell a business. I unwind by watching TV – with headphones on so I can’t hear my kids fighting (Peter 13, and Georgia, 11).

Coming to work 7 days a week is easier than dealing with teenagers at home!

It is a very demanding industry but I’m lucky – when I’m out of here I’m out of here.

At 5 minutes to 4 I have already shut down mentally. It’s ‘beer o’clock’.

Biggest selling item?

The coffee sells itself. I have one dedicated barista, though 3 of us can make coffee. Here, we do not have the same turnover of product as I have experienced in my other cafes in the city. We were doing 220kg of coffee beans a week at one location alone.

It depends on the day with the food menu. We can’t make enough waffles on the weekends. Weekdays it’s the ‘green bowls’ that sell the most. This is a concoction of Kale, snow peas, avocado, wakame seaweed, edamame beans and poached salmon.

What’s next – another café?

It’s what I do.

It’s what I know.


When I get up to leave at the end of our chat, Stan’s wife calls to check if he has put the signs up for tomorrow. They are shutting the doors so that a major bank can occupy the entire venue for the day to shoot an advertisement.

It will be Stan’s first official day off since the day he took over West Juliett on the 23rd March. I wonder on the drive home what he will do with his time off….



View From the Sidelines


Spring has officially arrived in Sydney, where we are also at the tail end of a flu epidemic, despite a very mild winter. Local media have declared this city the ‘fully sick’ capital of Australia. Supplies in pharmacies have been depleted, particularly of Tamiflu; classrooms and workplaces emptied of staff and students. There are four influenza strains floating around.

I too was a victim and as a result, everything stopped for me in August, days and weeks disappearing off the radar. The world narrowed down: moving from couch to bed and outdoor lounge. I lost all sense of routine, focusing only on getting better and trying not to worry that it was taking so long.

Illness brings its own kind of routine – medications to buy (and tissues!), doctors’ appointments to attend. And lots of sleeping in between. Sitting on the sidelines watching the world pass by, wishing I could walk barefoot on my favourite beach.

I dreamt that I was hunched inside a big cardboard box with a little gap in the top corner where the sides and top meet. A drinking straw poked through the gap and I was struggling to breathe through it.

Interesting things happen when you stop. I listed all the birds that visit my tiny back garden (10 in total) and noticed new shoots sprouting. The whirring of wings woke me one morning – a pair of Spotted Doves nesting in the climbing jasmine on the front porch. They fussed and fidgeted, plucking long strands from the foliage for their project. I imagined being a drone and following them, to see where they spend the rest of their day. A Wattlebird rustled in the paperbark tree outside my bedroom window, its weight drooping the branch into a bow.

There were joyous moments: one tiny bird launched itself from a palm tree, zooming past me so close that I could feel its feathers brush against my cheek. I didn’t get to see it. Or the unexpected sweet sound of the girl next door singing a Vietnamese lullaby.

A Superb Fairy-wren with its magnificent blue head hopped right into the kitchen one morning. It got caught in a trap that was meant for a very cheeky mouse, who had been eating the succulent shoots of the newly planted sweet peas in the garden. The splendour of the birds’ feathers struck a stark contrast against the wood and steel of the cheaply made trap. Fortunately, its demise was quick.

More sounds dropped themselves in my lap for further inspection: a goods train rumbling in the early dawn, its carriages clicking and clacking as it drew closer; a school marking time with its automated bell; the hum of local traffic punctuated by sirens and trucks; an announcement on a PA system; someone vacuuming to Michael Jackson’s Greatest Hits.

I heard my neighbour talking on the phone – his laugh could fill a room – and took soup to another who struck with illness too. Smoke from a burn-off heralded the start of a bush fire prone season as the hours melted away.

A friend sent me a book during this time, Light and Shadow by the recently deceased journalist Mark Colvin. I was humbled by his optimism, especially as he suffered ill health since reporting on the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. There he contracted a rare auto immune disease, a precursor for ongoing health issues that involved a kidney transplant and dialysis. More recently he was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, which took his life in May this year.

The following is from an interview with Julia Baird on the ABC’s (Australia) The Drum shortly after his transplant in 2014:

The best thing is the three days I get back. You have no idea…you might think, well, that’s only six hours in the chair, but it actually stretches out, the travel time, putting the needle in, and then there’s the awful stuff of when things go wrong and you bleed for an hour afterwards and things go even wronger (sic), and you get septicaemia and you have to be in hospital for a number of weeks.

I’m rid of all that, touch wood. And that’s really good. I have a lot of arthritic pain but other than that I’m absolutely fine.

A colleague from my writing group emailed to check if I’d succumbed to daytime television while recovering. No! Though one night I did watch a program about the founder of RUOK? , a suicide prevention charity based in Sydney. Founder Gavin Larkin set the organisation up as a response to his father’s suicide and concerns about his own depression. Gavin passed away in 2011 from cancer at the age of 42, after a total of 19 months battling the disease, and a bone marrow transplant. His 15-year-old son, Gus, died of a brain tumour two years later.

That certainly put my predicament in perspective.

Footnote: National RUOK? Day is on 14 September


At the Pool 2


It is a cold winter’s morning in Sydney.

Three elderly women are talking and laughing in the change room. I recognise their language as Mandarin Chinese. They are the only occupants at this hour. Have I walked into some kind of private club? Their familiarity and ease with each other reminds me of siblings: each jostling for centre stage, their noisy banter taking up all the space.

One woman is vigorously soaping herself up in the open shower, still engaged in the conversation. Another is drying herself. The third is fully clothed and at the hand basin, applying cream to her face. There are three small plastic containers lined up neatly beside her, each in its own clear bag. I smell mothballs as I sidle up to her to adjust my swimming cap in the mirror.

Their liveliness warms the tiled room with the concrete floor that is showing years of neglect – chipped doors and peeling paint, faded posters and broken toilet seats.

As the sun is just coming up I escape their noisy interchange for the quiet of the indoor pool in the next building. I mark my territory in Lane 4 by placing my flippers and kickboard on the concrete at its head. Show Pony (see the previous post At the Pool) in Lane 3 recognises me. I was hoping to slip into the water unnoticed, meditating on the swim ahead.

Show Pony wants a chat. After a brief interchange, I gently end the conversation and push off. I can almost hear my joints clicking and creaking under the water as I pull each arm back, up and over my head.

The water is slightly cooler compared to the humidity of the air inside the building. The windows have fogged up. I get into the rhythm of the stroke and lose count of the laps, intuitively changing the routine when my body tells me to, freestyle, butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke.

Between strokes, I see the regular group of retirees performing their aquaerobics routine, a slow dance up and down the shallows. None of them is moving in time. Not many here today, perhaps the cold morning has kept them in bed. There are also new faces: a man with a perfect handlebar moustache, his spectacles dangling around his neck. He is marching on the spot. And another, leaning against the tiles with a faraway look in his eyes, gazing at nothing in particular.

One of the regular life guards on duty looks bored. He has a sizeable novel for company. I am tempted to pull myself up out of the water to ask him what he is reading, and if is it in his native language, Russian. Would he be too preoccupied with a gripping passage of the book to look up and notice someone struggling in the water?

Soon I am riding on a crest of endorphins, completely immersed in the moment. I have forgotten everything, just a vessel, just swimming.

Passing the other way as Show Pony finishes his laps, I kick energetically, hanging on to my board, on the downhill run myself. A boiling wake trails behind me. I nod my farewell.

Young families start to trickle in for vacation swimming lessons with their awkward cargo of oversized beach towels and floating devices. The children’s excited laughter and cries ricochet off the concrete, glass and steel.

Floating, spread-eagled like a star fish, I think of my mother who came from a country where swimming wasn’t such a popular pastime. I visualise her doing an elegant version of breaststroke in our backyard pool, wearing her black halter neck swimsuit, trying not to get her hair wet.

The foggy windows have cleared as I pull myself up out of the water.  The children’s play area outside is shining in the morning sun. The brightly coloured fountains and sprinklers look bereft and forgotten next to a backdrop of bare, spindly trees. I can almost hear the stillness out there as the noise inside crescendos. A little girl decked out in pink definitely doesn’t want to do her swimming lesson this morning. Her mother, with an anxious look and a baby on her hip, is coaxing her into the water to the smiling instructor. Maybe she wanted to sleep in.

On the drive home the sun creates stripes through the trees over the road, like bar codes. I turn the radio on, half listening to the news. A woman has been accidentally shot dead by police in the US, a man in India has been tied to a stake and burnt alive. I turn it off again.

Trying to erase the bad news that has made its way into my car, I focus on the big blue sky for the rest of the short trip home. And think of a hot shower and breakfast.